|THE LIGHT SHINES IN DARKNESS,
AND THE DARKNESS HAS NOT OVERCOME IT…
Advent was especially deep this year: the home-made cards, the counting down of the days with the vintage German calendar, the Office in the dark each morning, 7 am Mass, the walks around the neighborhood at night, the opening of the heart, the forgiveness of self and others, the planning of the December 25th dinner.
Christmas eve I thought to attend a vigil family Mass.
I loved seeing the families and the children. After weeks of “O Come, O Come Emmanual,” as always we finally got to sing a couple of opening carols.
Then the priest gave his homily.
He opened by addressing the kids. “We all get excited about our presents, don’t we?” he said. “Well, I got so excited about mine that I opened one of them first. And you know what I got? A selfie stick!”
I froze. I did not know what a selfie stick even is but I knew it couldn’t be good, and I could also guess. (One brand describes itself as “a Selfie taking package comprised of an extendable monopod and a remote bluetooth button)” [sic].
“Anyone who knows me knows I love to take pictures of myself and my friends!” the priest continued, producing a wand-like object from his cassock and turned it this way and that for all to admire.
This, while a poor woman on the run is undergoing labor in a manger. This, on the night the shepherds watched their flocks by night and the Savior of the world was born. This on the altar on which Christ was crucified.
A selfie stick.
The “new evangelization” was complete. A Catholic priest, on the holiest night of the year, was delivering a homily encouraging children to shop, buy useless consumer goods, and take pictures of themselves.
You could say, Hey, give the guy a break, so he likes to take pictures of himself and his friends. But gone are the days when we pasted the photos in an album reserved for our cousins, grandchildren and close chums. The whole purpose of selfies is to put them on the internet in order to project in image of ourselves as loved, as thriving, as “happy.” The whole effect is to hide from ourselves our terrible emptiness, our fear that we are not loved, our terror in this culture of success of being perceived as losers.
While I’m on the subject, since when did the Mass become a low-grade Oscars ceremony? As this one continued, we were encouraged to clap six or eight times. We clapped for the children who read, the parishioners for whom this was their first time at the church, for the choir, the people who bought poinsettias, for the servers, for the priests.
We clapped for everyone but Christ for the very good reason that you don’t clap for Christ, you prostrate yourself before him.
And don’t try to pin it on LA. You know and I know this stuff goes on all over the world.
The next day I hosted Christmas dinner for 12 friends. Just as I stood to say grace, one of them straggled in late and before even saying hello, produced a camera and started snapping photos. “Put that thing down,” I surprised myself by hissing. “Do not post pictures of this on Facebook.”
Partly I was annoyed at the boorishness of a guest who’d show up an hour late to a sit-down Christmas dinner. Partly the day before I’d gone to my FB account and been confronted with a ready-made Year in Review, “curated” by some repulsively intrusive marketing algorithm. How dare you purport to tell my story, to witness to my life?
But mostly that Christmas eve Mass had shaken me to my core. I have always been an abjectly grateful convert. I have always quoted Romano Guardini; “The Church is the cross upon which Christ is crucified.” I’ve always known to take what I like and leave the rest, not in the sense of being a cafeteria Catholic but in the sense of realizing that the aesthetic and sensibility of the Church is not tailor-made for me, and that nothing trumps the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, that the insult of bad music, bad art, bad homilies and sometimes bad theology are to Christ, not to me.
But this was an experience I’d not quite had before, of literally feeling like I was worshiping at an altar of a different God than the priest himself. To think a selfie stick is a good thing, period, never mind a good thing to promote to children on Christmas eve, evinces an orientation of heart, a prayer life, and a lack of concern for the suffering of the world and the forces from which that suffering springs that are so diametrically opposed to my own that I quailed. “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him,” as Mary Magdalene said…
Listen, I’m as narcissistically disordered as anyone: probably more so. That is precisely why I’m so often before the Blessed Sacrament, more or less ceaselessly in prayer, and continually examining my conscience, more often than not appalled at the extent of my half-heartedness, my hypocrisy, my out-for-myselfness. I struggle constantly with the need to make a livelihood from my writing, and thus to make known the availability of my work and speaking schedule, versus the very narcissism of which I speak.
But it’s one thing to be cognizant of our tendency toward idolatry and another to celebrate it.
From the chapter “Notes on Consumerism” in Jeff Dietrich’s The Good Samaritan:
“This process of substituting image for reality, surface for substance, began with the invention of photography a little more than a hundred years ago. Stuart Ewen quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes in a euphoric but prescient vision:
‘For Holmes, photography signaled the beginning of a time when “the image would become more important than the object itself, and would in fact make the object disposable.” “Form,” he proclaimed, “is henceforth divorced from matter.” Men will hunt all curious, grand, and beautiful objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth.’ “
I’m sure that priest is a wonderful guy. I liked his bearing, his voice. I appreciated the way he said the rest of the Mass. But I can’t get that image of a Catholic priest, brandishing a “selfie stick” on the altar, out of my mind.
And we laughed at the silly Native Americans who feared the white man’s camera would steal their souls.
|MARY AND JOSEPH,
NORTH OCCIDENTAL STREET, L.A.